Lent, Week Four: Dangerous and Safe

Right, so, this is crazy late, I realize.  I had half a post all set up and then went and had an absolutely ridiculous weekend that involved, among other things, my car breaking down in a different state than the one in which I live and me almost getting squashed by a semi and having to call friends to help me out.

I’m okay.  I’m just saying, it’s been intense.  So this is hella late.  Think of it less like I completely missed last week and more like this is a Spiritual Implications two-for-one post sale this week.  Bogo, y’all.

Many of my friends will exasperatedly tell you that I don’t have a good nose for danger.  It’s not that I’m stupid or even unobservant; I just don’t think about consequences properly (and I’m crazy stubborn) before I barge into all manner of situations that are Pretty Bad Ideas in retrospect.  Most of the time these are moments of physical danger in that I’ll put myself in a place where my bodily well-being is at risk.  Sometimes it’s emotional danger, when I am around people or events that threaten my psychological balance.  And, while some would scoff at the possibility, I’ve even been in spiritual danger, placing my soul in compromised situations.  The friend who rescued me by driving up yesterday to retrieve me from the shop where my car is (and yes, it totally feels like I’m missing a piece of myself to have it be seventy miles away) has informed me there will be so much yelling for my having gone off and taken a road trip with a car I knew was in poor condition.  I’m pretty sure I also freak Interpreter out a lot with how many times I cheat death in the choices I make.  The excuse “it’s worked so far” will only hold so long, I realize.

danger-signMy courting of danger is actually hilarious because I am in no way a thrill-seeker by nature.  I’m actually pretty cautious and I don’t do things that are deliberately meant to raise chemical levels of danger (Will Robinson) response (roller coasters, bungee jumping, skydiving, etc.—count me the eff out).  But I decide quite often that I need to do something or get somewhere and damned be whatever gets in my way, including safety and sanity.  I don’t recommend it as a life strategy.  It irks your friends.

But that concept of danger is such a weird thing, and actually an appropriate Lenten topic—after all, the Adversary took Jesus to the top of the Temple and told Him to jump, daring Him to cheat danger on the idea that safety was certain.  The kind of danger I court is ill-advised, for sure.  And the kind of danger the world provides is awful; my heart grieves for London.  But there’s a certain kind of danger in being faithful that we are asked to walk into knowingly:  a danger to who we are.

I realize that sounds like the set-up for some terrible pun (are you a pilot?  Because we’re about to enter the danger zone) or pick-up line or something, but I don’t mean it that way.  I’m quite serious; faith should challenge your notions of who you and the people around you are.  It should be a dangerous undertaking, not to our physical selves but to our selfishness, our ideas of self-preservation, our priorities.  Jesus tells people to take up a cross, for crying out loud.  Those kill people.

The difference is that in the kind of danger that I find myself in involving sketchy motels in nowhere towns on dark and rainy nights there is no bedrock guarantee of safety.  When Jesus asks us to stretch, to risk, to grow and change and Go Forth into the world, we don’t do it alone.  We step out in the faith that God will not ask us to do something that will completely and irrevocably fuck us up, because sadistic god is not a god I want anything to do with.  This is not to say that we should just go with whatever we feel is being asked of us; after all, the Adversary was quoting Scripture when he told Jesus to trust that angels would catch Him.  We have to be wise as serpents in the world because it is indeed a dangerous place.  But that, too, is part of the faith life:  learning what God’s voice sounds like and how it differs from the sounds that try to drag you into that which is truly and alarmingly dangerous.

Stay safe, Reader, but not so safe that you can’t act in the many ways God can use you.  And don’t mess with semis.  They are not kidding around.

 

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  (Psalm 23:4, AKJV)

Lent, Week Two: Light and Dark

Right, so I know I said we were going to work with the elements of the wilderness but the Blogging Spirit says pairs.  So we’re going pairs.

It snowed this morning here in the Wicket Gate; this is remarkable because this is the American South and it doesn’t really snow all that often here.  It was warm even before global warming.

4ab51967138a6856445430523bbfce5dThis is also remarkable because I absolutely love snow.  I love it.  I love the way it slows everything down, I love the slight weight of it as it falls, I love the silence it engenders, I love the chill of it and the sting the air bites into your cheeks, I love the way snow outlines everything and makes every single twig and parapet a white exclamation point against dark tree bark and grey shingles.  I love the snow.  And it has affected me more than I realized that it doesn’t really snow here—I apparently count on winter as a breathing respite far more than I knew and I think the lack of it has contributed a lot to how overwhelmed and de-centered I’ve felt.  So the snow today was a precious gift and I literally skipped through it across one of the major roads singing My Favorite Things to myself because it was beautiful and there were so few cars it was laughable and running errands in that kind of silence was so, so wonderful.

Light in the darkness.

After getting ink (a necessary though expensive reality, especially now that printers have been programmed not to recognize the cheaper off-brand cartridges) I took myself out to brunch for a sandwich at one of the local fast-food places.  The life of the student is a glamorous flirtation with the poverty line, something I point out not to get into an appeal for money or onto my soapbox on the stupidity that we as a society feel students somehow “deserve” to be poor but to underscore that breakfast out isn’t something I do every day.  As I was sitting down at the restaurant, a man came up to me and asked if I had a dollar to spare so he could get breakfast.  It’s unusual, even here in the city, for someone to come into a place to ask like that; there’s kind of an unspoken agreement that begging as a transaction remains outside, but like I said, it was snowing.  Hunger can prompt some incredible things that we would never have thought ourselves capable of, and hunger with cold demands to be fixed.  Mindful of having recently preached a sermon on Jesus’ differentiation between the hunger of the body and of the spirit, I said come on, I’ll buy you a value meal breakfast, I can do that much.  I intended to have him eat with me since I think that giving money without even the attempt to build connection isn’t helpful to anybody.

We went up to the counter and I gestured him ahead, determined not to speak for him, trying desperately to figure out how this would work since I’m bad at small talk and I really just wanted to watch the snow.  He ordered some eight or nine things, still not an exorbitant cost because it’s a cheap place but way over what I was prepared to spend, especially after having spent so much on the ink.  I didn’t know what to do; I had not expected him to take liberty of my offer, which is perhaps woefully naive.  A manager passing by stopped and said no, he was just in here with someone else; apparently this man had been working the system all morning, waiting for new customers to cycle in and then getting them to buy him more things.  She asked if I still wanted to continue with the transaction and I said no, I couldn’t afford what he was asking, cancel it out.  He asked me when he was going to get his food and I said I can’t give you what you want, I can do this and nothing more.  He looked at me disbelievingly and left.

Darkness in the light.

I tell you this not to say that all beggars are crooks (they certainly aren’t) nor that I’m a saint for having tried (goodness, no).  I wish I could tell you how to respond to those who ask for alms, I really do; I feel like, especially as a pastor, I’m supposed to have some kind of answer for how to react, when to give money and when not, what to say.  I don’t know any of that.  I’m awful and uncomfortable and conflicted as all get-out when it comes to these kinds of interactions.  I tell you this because it is so incredible to me to have it juxtaposed against the beautiful snow, the crisp clarity of the flakes nearly lost in the murky confusion of how to look another human being in the eye and say I cannot give you what you want.

Darkness, and light.

When Jesus looks Satan in the eye and says I will not give you what you want after He is starving in the wilderness, after His face has become chapped not from the cold but from the sun that burns and the wind that scratches sand across the skin, does He hesitate?  Does He wish there was a manual of how to interact with this, how to look at the darkness and still be the light?  Or is He the manual, sure-footed and strong even in His exhaustion, knowing that the light will always win out?  Here in the wilderness I wonder, aware that God is in the snow and the stranger and wishing I understood what She wants of me in either situation.

 

In him there was life. That life was light for the people of the world.  The Light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overpowered the Light.  (John 1:4-5, ICB)

Egypt and Other False Hopes

Why yes, I am writing this instead of the sermon and two papers I need to be writing.  Welcome to divinity school.

Just so you know, it has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad few weeks.  Even in Australia.  Part of it being so bad is that all the spheres of my life are currently out of whack.  My friends and I have been in some weird spaces, school is frustrating and exhausting at best, my three jobs are financially unhelpful and not terribly life-giving, my faith is a wild mess, the political scene is terrifying and sorrow-inducing, and my car now has a crunched bumper and a tail-light magnificently patched together by Interpreter and jank as all get-out.

Nearly everything is not good.

Perhaps that laundry list resonates with you, Reader—I sure hope not, but if it does know that I hate everything right now, too.  I’m weary; not just tired, but worn to strange edges that constitute no recognizable shape.  I’ve found myself wondering a lot lately why I moved here to the Wicket Gate, why I left the Land of Pilgrims, why I’m in divinity school.

In short, why I left Egypt.

I don’t pull in the metaphor to say that the Land of Pilgrims was at all comparable to slavery (far from it; part of it was home in a way I’d never experienced before, but part of it was completely unhealthy), and I know I’m not the first to connect the complaining Israelites to modern angst with God’s leadership.  But I’ve never felt so clearly that connection.  I am soul-sore, spiritually thirsty, and starving for hope.  Of course I’m going to say to Moses that we should never have left, that at least in Egypt we were fed, that selling my soul wasn’t so bad—at least it was safe.  And it was; I was by no means rich in the Land of Pilgrims, but I was stable.  I didn’t have the fanciest place to live, but it was mine and it was home.  I hated my job, but my church sustained me.  I had community.  I had a life.

And here, in this in-between place, I don’t have that.  I have a banged-up car and more student loans and disappointing professors and damn it, God, why did You make me leave Egypt?

Because God had other plans—plans to which I agreed as I sang my little self across the dry Red Sea, as a I said okay, God, I trust You so much I’ll even get a tattoo to commemorate it.  I left my Egypt because it was killing me to stay and every one of my beautiful, caring friends saw it.  I left because the wilderness was terrifying but wide open in possibility.  And I left because God said come on, we’re moving, and I said, okay.

I now have three jobs in which I regularly practice pastoral relationship even as I am learning what that even means.  I helped a friend move this morning and then we sat on his stoop in the chilly sunshine and just were with each other, which is one of the best ways I re-energize in a relationship.  I got to simply be with Interpreter last weekend while he patched up my car and patiently answered my questions about how it’s put together because I know zilch about cars.  I get to go back to Egypt this summer for an internship that will probably kill me but will definitely change me.

13This wilderness is not accidental.  Do I need to change some things to make it healthier?  Yes.  Moses had to pull water from rocks and the Israelites ate raining bread; the wilderness isn’t mean to be experienced without change.  And it isn’t meant to be itself a destination; the Israelites were looking for the Promised Land.  I am looking to be ordained (which sometimes feels as far from a Promised Land as possible, but hey).  And sometimes, the wilderness lasts longer than intended—it took the Israelites forty years to go a distance that should have taken a month at most.  But even on the worst days when you are freaking sick of bread and your feet hurt and your throat is parched and you have run out of travelling jokes completely, going back to Egypt is not a helpful choice.  I could indeed go back to the Land of Pilgrims and, I’m sure, settle into a lovely and comfortable life.  But it would be turning my back on all that God is asking of and offering to me, all of the ways that I am growing and changing and learning, all of the impact I’m having on others even as they are impacting me.

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day that kicks off Lent.  In the Lenten season Christians remember the forty days in the wilderness that Jesus spent, itself an echo of the forty years of the Israelites.  We hold all of who we are to the Light in preparation for the incredible celebration of Easter, the central point of our faith in which we proclaim a risen Christ Whose love overturns even Death.  Easter is a party—but the wilderness is my current reality, even as it itself is shot through with Easters.

Walk the wilderness with me, Reader.  If you feel comfortable, let me know some of what your desert looks like.  Slough off the idea that going back to Egypt is going to help.  And please; remind me to do the same.

 

 And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt?   Is this not what we told thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.  (Exodus 14:11-12, JUB)

Loving My Unlikable Neighbors

So one of my housemates is an asshat.

I say this, dear horrified Reader, knowing full well that name-calling on the internet is something we all need less of right now.  And I say this knowing that it is certainly unkind to tear someone apart in a forum s/he can’t see (and isn’t even aware of).  But I also say this from objective (read:  many others besides me) narratives and from subjective (read:  my own experience) narratives.  I say this from having several encounters with this particular individual that were, to put it lightly, unpleasant.  And I say this from exactly that place of hope for cleaner conversations in which we likely all sit right now in the wake of recent political injustices.  Why this particular person is an asshat doesn’t really matter to you since your experience with him/her should not be shaped by my interactions.  But s/he makes it really, really hard to do the Christian love thing.

WHICH IS PRECISELY WHY JESUS TELLS US TO DO IT.

7e2d5d2d9120ee69ea0c1c24bf0fe3eeThere is no shortage of people at which we can direct all manner of negative emotion right now.  It could be on a personal level, like my idiot housemate; it could be on a political level, like misogynistic senators; it could be on a celebrity level, or a random-stranger level, or whatever.  Don’t even try to tell me there aren’t people you seriously don’t love right now, Reader.  But the hell of it is, every single one of them is also a creation of God.

I was struck by this when I got back to the house after yet another ungodly long day of classes and meetings and all of the crazy that this semester is throwing at me.  The house where I live isn’t really a house; it’s kind of an apartment building with some shared open spaces on the first floor.  In that open space is a baby grand piano and this particular person was sitting (facing away from me) at the piano and pouring his/her heart out onto the keys.  S/he’s a pretty decent player and I just stood there and listened for a few minutes.  I love music and wish I were comfortable playing the piano (I have the most basic knowledge but haven’t made space to practice enough to gain any proficiency) and I just loved watching this person be so in that moment with the act of making art.  S/he was a person, a fully three-dimension person in that moment who loves and aches and laughs and plays the piano.

And is also an asshat.  Because the thing about loving other people, Reader, is that love does not mean everything becomes okay.  Let me unpack that:  if I love you, I love all of you, even the parts that drive me up the wall.  But when I love you, I do not allow you to be cruel or unjust; my love is not a permission slip to harm other people.  My loving you does not make you perfect.  Likewise, God love us all.  (YES, YOU.  GOD LOVES YOU.  DEAL WITH IT.)  But God’s love in and of itself does not make every action we do perfect.  We are still more than able to sin (trust me on this one, I know).  We are still more than able to be misogynist, or racist, or demeaning, or dismissive, or general asshats.  We are loved, but that love is exactly what calls us to be better versions of ourselves, to be more like the Jesus Who called us to such an impossibly difficult task as loving those who persecute us or even just really honk us off on a regular basis.

So what does this mean for my neighbor?  For starters, it means that this whole post is making me miss Mr. Rogers like whoa.  For seconds, it means that his/her actions are not excused because Jesus calls me to love him/her.  When s/he says things that are intentionally condescending to me or when s/he does things that negatively impact my ability to continue my day unharmed, that’s wrong.  Love doesn’t make that right.  It’s still wrong.  (For a lovely and well-written version of this in a more historical view, check out Magister’s examination of How to Read History Responsibly.)

But it also means that I don’t get to hate the very existence of this person.  I don’t get to talk about him/her with my friends and laugh about how annoying s/he is; I don’t get to ignore him/her when I see him/her in the kitchen like s/he’s not even real; I don’t get to tell you, Reader, all of the things that s/he does and have you agree with me about his/her asshattery.  I am called to love the personhood of this other, to respect that s/he also has ungodly long days.  When I call him/her out on the jerk things s/he does or says, I am called to do so from a position of knowing that Jesus died for him/her, too.  I don’t get to tear him/her down to bite size because I’m pissed off.  I don’t get to undermine his/her humanity.

Even though I really, really want to sometimes.

Because Jesus asks hard stuff.  And He knew it would be hard; this is that “pick up your cross“-level work.  This is “the rest of the world will think you’re stupid.”  This is “I am flipping the whole system over.”  Love is powerful.  It changes things, if it’s real.

Even me.  And, hopefully, even my neighbor.  Provided I don’t punch him/her in the face first.

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?”  (Matthew 5:43-46, WEB)

Christianity in the New Reality

Oh, Reader, I could use a whole lot of Jesus right now.

It’s been a hell of a week for Americans—for the world at large, really, since America has had nearly 100 years to wrap its long fingers around the limbs of every other country.  I have been disappointed by my country quite a few times, but this is perhaps the first time I’ve been frightened by and for it.  The reckless foolishness, the open childishness, and the marginalizing endangerment of the new administration—in only one week!—are exhausting.  My spirit hurts, my heart hurts, my body aches from marching around Washington, D.C. to remind the world and myself that I matter because I am a woman, not in spite of it.

And I won’t lie, being in seminary is not making it easier.  I think I’ve mentioned before that I attend a pretty liberal divinity school—far more liberal than I am, in some areas.  The anger and the pain of the students here feed mine such that we all starve from them, our very souls gnawing at empty insides because we see only that which is cruel, that which is unmerciful.

I do not know how to recharge from that.

dscn2067Because I do not believe that I, as a Christian or as a faith leader, can walk away from this.  A family member called me out earlier this week in accusation that I wasn’t preaching love, kindness, and forgiveness because I went to the D.C. march and am unapologetic about my reasoning.  But what is love that does not pull the loved one away from evil?  How kind is it to avoid confrontation such that others are harmed because of my unwillingness to speak?  At the end of days, how do I ask God to forgive me if He has to say, “I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me“?

I’ve no intention of turning this blog into an activist space in terms of recruiting you to do anything, Reader; I have other spaces for that, and I hope you do as well.  Nor do I particularly want this to become a conversational space about which politician we dislike this week, not least because I am tired of having those conversations without the benefit of looking people in the eye and saying their real names.  For me, this blog needs to remain a place in which I catalog and describe the God-shaped space in my life and how that shifts and shines.  Heaven knows I need to be more aware than ever before of God’s constant Presence.

But I challenge you and I challenge myself to bring faith into all of our conversations in this new era.  Who is starving, physically and spiritually?  Are we contributing to their inability to be filled?  Are we ourselves, we God-made vessels of the imago Dei, trying to survive on not enough?  Who is parched, and how can we offer both water and Living Water that does not drown and does not cause further thirst?  Who is strange to us, and how do we welcome them?  How do we welcome the parts of ourselves that we cannot yet face because we have bifurcated our own souls, our families, our friends who are too “other”?  Who has been stripped naked, who stands in the harsh light of this day without rights, without safety, without hope, without love, without kindness?  Who is sick, who is trapped in prisons of their own making or of ours?  Have we gone to them and called them by name as children of God?

In the least of these is God.  In the greatest of these is God.  In the average of these is God.  In us is God, for in Him we live and move and have our being.  How shall we act as though this is true?  How shall we move forward as those who have claimed and been claimed by Jesus the Christ?

From wells of worship that never run dry, though we may feel as though there is only dusty earth at the bottom.  May God stand with you in the days ahead, Reader.  May we both recognize Him as He does so.

Help me understand your orders. Then I will think about your miracles.  I am sad and tired. Make me strong again as you have promised.  Don’t let me be dishonest; have mercy on me by helping me obey your teachings.  (Psalm 119:27-29, NCV)

Christmas Day: Women and Religion

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.

    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
    for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
    establishing and sustaining it
    with justice and righteousness
    now and forever.

The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7, CEB)

Merry Christmas, Reader!  It has been quite the journey this particular Advent; now we come to the “payoff,” so to speak.  Christ is born—alleluia!  The Church year has restarted and soon the calendar one will as well—but what shall happen to the women when Advent ends and the Church follows the very much male Jesus through His life?

Today’s particular passage from Isaiah, besides being a pair of great pieces from the Messiah oratorio by Handel, is applicable not least because there are so many ways in which we walk in darkness.  From the context of this female-affirming Advent series, we walk in the darkness of those who continue to overlook the gifts and presence of women within and outside of the Church.  We walk in the darkness of humorous nativities that still don’t challenge the lack of women in our faith stories (you can have an iPhone but not a female angel, really?).  We walk in the darkness of those who are still arguing God intended women to be utterly submissive to men.  We walk in the darkness of clouded glass ceilings.  We walk in the darkness of having to choose and defend pronouns for God as though God actually has a gender and inclusivity of both “He” and “She” somehow challenges God’s ability to be God.  We walk in the darkness of inequity and injustice.

And oh, how good to see a great light.

In this passage Isaiah hails one who made the nation great—long before red hats ever proclaimed the campaign slogan, Cyrus of Persia sent Israelites back home to rebuild their temple after having been in exile for hundreds of years.  Christians of the early Church took the passage and remade it to recognize the risen Christ who would make all nations great in shattering the binding yokes and oppressors’ rods.  In this new place with this new ruler will be justice and righteousness flowing like the rivers Amos invoked in his prophecies.

feminism_fair_enidePart of that justice, part of that righteousness, is the Church’s commitment to honor its people through the year.  Mary and Elizabeth fade back into the Christian tapestry now that Jesus is born, but their voices are not silenced.  Mary continues to appear in Jesus’ life as an important figure, and other Marys and a Martha and many nameless women walk across that world-changing stage.  Women do not drop out of the narrative, then or now; their voices continue to be important, their gifts continue to deserve development, and their place in the work of bringing God’s reign into human life continues to matter.

So how can the Church work into this justice?  Listen to women’s stories; hear their voices without trying to correct them or reshape them.  If you are a woman and you feel comfortable doing so, tell your story; speak of what religion and faith mean to you and the places within your tradition where you find acceptance.  Actively seek to place women in leadership roles—and women, do not settle for not having them.  Learn about the damaging history the Church has with women and pay attention to the ways that those words and actions continue in the present day.  Challenge fellow Christians not to let passive sexism slide.  Challenge yourself to call out those who make crass comments or jokes to you.  Pray for guidance in relationships with those identifying as female.  Read through Scripture, paying attention to the places women are and aren’t.  Love the women around you, whether as a woman yourself or as an ally and supporter.  Recognize that Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, did not turn away from women, and neither can we.

Merry Christmas.  May the love, the joy, the hope, and the peace of the season go with you to your places of celebration.  May the coming year truly bring us closer to the increased joy of a land on which light has dawned and women and men are both understood to be gifted and called into the priesthood of all believers equipped to go and bring that light to a dark world waiting for good news.

Advent, Week Four: Love

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary.  When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”  She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.  Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.  Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.Nothing is impossible for God.”

Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.  (Luke 1:26-38, CEB)

What a loaded word “love” is for women.  “Love” often means affection, or lust, or attraction, or attachment; for “love” to mean something deep, lasting, empowering, and healthy is, unfortunately, somewhat rare in modern culture all over the world.  This last Sunday of Advent takes all of the waiting of the season, all of the stress and anxiety and wonder and weariness, and hands back love.

historyboys8_queensjoyThe language of love is part and parcel of the Christian Church—for love Christ died, for love Christ rose; Christians are commanded to love God, one another, and self.  But love—true love, and not in the Disney sense of “true” love—is hard.  It takes work.  It takes vulnerability.  It takes hope, and peace, and joy, and frustration, and communication, and dedication, and change.  Love may be something into which people fall, but it must be something in which they actively try to remain.  Christian love asks huge things, demands huge things in the name of incredibly huge love from God Herself.

What does the Church demand?  One of the many things that prompted me to do this series addressing women in the Church from the position of a woman in the Church was the shameful and horrifying things said in the last year toward women and the silent allowance of much of the Church in response.  Christianity’s track record with women is not exactly lovely, whether it be the early Church father Tertullian calling women the “gate to hell” in his treatise On the Apparel of Womenor the description of women as “defective and misbegotten” by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica.  Such destruction is not limited to the long-forgotten ages:  Pat Robertson, a Southern Baptist evangelist, claimed in 1992 that the feminist agenda was not about equality but “it is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”  And just this past election cycle in America, many churches and church leaders stayed silent when the man who is now the president-elect called women bimbos, accused them of being at fault for their husbands’ infidelities, rated women’s value as people on their weight and physical appearance, and actively bragged about sexual assault.  (The Telegraph has pulled together a long timeline of his misogyny and predatorial nature, in case you’re curious about how far it goes.)

There is no love whatsoever in any Church leader or layperson not standing against this systemic dehumanization of women.  There is no excuse for such language or actions to ever be condoned by those who call themselves Christians.  This Advent, the Church must be a bearer of such incredible and deep love for women simply because they are God’s creations that there should be no doubt as to women’s worth.  Many, however, refuse to take on this direct an action, insisting there are other ways the Church shows love and support.

Love must be said.  It is most often shown in works, true, but to voice love for another has a power all its own.  To make the claim of love in front of “God and everybody,” as the saying goes, is to be vulnerable—and the Church is currently not being vulnerable.  Instead, women are told to bear their own vulnerability by the elusiveness of Christians who will not stand up and declare the awareness that women are purposefully and beautifully created, meant from the beginning to be part of humanity’s story in all its twists and turns.

Today’s passage, known in liturgy as the Annunciation, is one of the more famous stories of Christianity.  Much of the focus is on the virgin birth and its impossibility made possible—yet verse 38 is perhaps the most powerful.  It was only after Mary agreed to this child that Gabriel left.  He waited for her consent.  In arguably the most pivotal moment of God’s interaction with humans, the free will of a woman was more important than God’s plans.  The faith and acceptance of Mary made Christianity as it is possible.

Was there a plan B had she said no?  Likely.  But the Church needs to take away from this story this Advent—and women, also, need to hear—that God Herself valued the voice of this woman enough to wait for her answer.  That is love, that recognition that force or absence of choice would have ruined the whole of the religion as far as hope or joy or peace or a feeling of safety or belonging for half of the human population goes.  That listening is something that we of the Church must do, now more than ever, whether it be recognizing as Alice Churnock writes that Christians are also sinners and there are stories of abuse we must be willing to hear because faith must be a place of healing; or whether it be refusing to talk over women who speak of pain within the Church as though their experience is unreal simply because not everyone shares it.

Know that you are loved, Reader.  Know that who you are, no matter your gender, is celebrated by God because you live as Her creation.  For you God made God’s self vulnerable enough to risk rejection; for love God was born; for love God lives.  Hold fast to that, in this and every season.